Obesity & Diabetes
Today, approximately 1 in 3 children are overweight, and 1 in 6 are obese.
Childhood obesity is on the rise, and the consequences are alarming. It's predicted that this generation of children will be the first in two centuries to have shorter life expectancies than their parents, by as much as five years! Serious health complications from childhood obesity include type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure, asthma, liver and gallbladder disease, and certain types of cancer.
In fact, obesity is associated with more chronic medical conditions than smoking or excessive drinking. As a parent, you'd probably be pretty concerned if your child got caught with cigarettes or alcohol; likewise, it's just as important to be concerned about excess pounds.
The culprit behind the growing childhood obesity epidemic is, of course, our lifestyle. Most Americans, including our children, spend their time either at a desk or in front of a screen. Today's average teen eats fast food twice a week and spends approximately four hours a day watching TV, playing video games or on the computer.
Combine this consistent lack of exercise with high-calorie diets based on convenience rather than nutrition, and the result is health-threatening obesity. More than ever before, children are being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the kind typically referred to as "adult onset diabetes" because it primarily affects adults who were overweight. (Type 1 diabetes, or "juvenile diabetes," is not the result of overweight but an autoimmune disease.) If current trends continue, adolescents with type 2 diabetes may start having heart troubles as early as age 30 or 40.
The good news in all this: Preventing childhood obesity and its associated diseases is within your control. Small changes to your family's lifestyle now can add up to big health benefits tomorrow, things like eating nutritious meals together (with the TV off!) and making an after-dinner walk part of your family's routine. (For more health-boosting strategies, visit our Kid Care Healthy Eating & Exercise page.)
But what if your child is already considered overweight or obese? Or what if you don't know?
The first place to start: your family doctor or pediatrician. Because children grow and change at different rates, what's considered normal and healthy for one child may not be so for another. When determining whether your child's weight is in the healthy range, your doctor will take into consideration his or her age, height and sex, and how it relates to other children of similar age. (You can also use a BMI calculator designed specifically for kids and teens, though this should not take the place of a candid conversation with your child's doctor.)
If your physician establishes that your child is overweight, there are a number of things you can do to help him or her lose the extra pounds. Keep in mind these tips:
- Make it a family goal. Eating better and getting more exercise are lifestyle changes that affect the entire family, kids and adults. Remember to practice what you preach; if you're healthy and active, your kids are likely to be too.
- Emphasize health, not weight. Kids and teens are sensitive about their appearance, so make your family's lifestyle adjustments about being healthy and strong, not about looking skinnier. Explain the seriousness of having excess weight, but don't scare them. Be positive and encouraging, and avoid lecturing.
- Make physical activity a social event. Encourage your kids to invite their friends over to ride bikes, go to the pool or join a family hiking trip. They'll be much more willing to exercise if it's disguised as fun!
- Emphasize moderation. Teach your kids that healthy eating is not about giving up all the foods they love. It's okay to eat cookies, ice cream and pizza, as long as they are the exceptions, not the rule. Be careful not to make certain foods taboo; instead, make their favorite junk foods a treat for very special occasions.
- Get your doctor involved. Your family physician or pediatrician should always be aware of any changes you make to your child's diet and exercise routine. Plus, he or she may be able to talk more candidly with your child about the need to lose excess weight and why it's important from a medical standpoint.
- Make healthy food options easily available. Keep a bowl of washed fruit out where kids can reach it, and portion out snacks into individual serving sizes for quick, easy snacking. Avoid buying high-calorie, processed foods - if it's not in the house, they can't eat it.
- Gradually (yet steadily) decrease portion sizes. Without knowing it, American families have internalized the expression "supersize it." Our portions are bigger than ever, even when we serve ourselves at home. Learn how to read food labels and start measuring out your food before it goes on the plate. No need to be obsessive - just make sure you have a good sense of what a single serving looks like. Another trick to try: use smaller plates! Smaller portions won't feel so small on a full salad plate.
BMI Calculator for Kids and Teens
Families Finding the Balance: A Parent Handbook
Healthy Weight - It's not a diet, it's a lifestyle!
FAQs About BMI for Kids
Portion Distortion Quiz
National Diabetes Education Program
empowerME: Website for Kids and Teens
Healthy Eating and Exercise
Children's Weight Management Center